The Valley Scourge
The Nugent Gang's Reign of Terror in the Cumberland Valley.
By: Justin McHenry
Update: This post has been updated to correct some information in the Crimeography section, most notably, that William Nugent did not in fact have his ears lopped off.
From the beginning of European settlement in the 1730s in what is now Franklin County, life along the frontier was hard living. Clearing the land, scraping at the Earth to try and survive. All under constant threat of Native Americans who had claimed ownership of the land for generations. Nothing was handed to them. Nothing came easy. It is because of this that myths and legends formed around frontiersmen and frontierswomen noble (see Daniel Boone). Piety. Hard work. Humility. All in the face of crushing isolation, yet in spite of this they survived and thrived.
Standing in contrast to these ideas are men like the Nugents, the Doan gang, the Shockeys, and David Lewis. Men that took advantage of the lawless nature of the frontier, much like a century later Frank and Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and John Wesley Hardin would in the American West. These Colonial bandits stole horses, torched farms, preyed on the locals, made and passed large amounts of counterfeit bills, causing the authorities to place large bounties upon their heads. Search parties scattered out to bring them to justice. With their homestead on Falling Spring Creek, the brothers Nugent, William, Benjamin and James, and their ever revolving group of banditi reigned terror upon the Valley and became as reviled to the European settlers as Native Americans were.
Not much is known about the patriarch’s, William Nugent, Sr.*, origins. He appears in Prince George’s County in Maryland in 1724 and migrated sometime after that to Cumberland County (now Franklin County) and settled along Falling Spring Creek. He seemed to have been a well-respected member of the community, with a wife, Ester, three daughters, and three sons. In 1745, he served as a tax collector for Antrim Township, and was, at the very least, good acquaintances with Benjamin Chambers, who served as co-executor of Nugent’s will. From the limited record, nothing would suggest he would be the father of notorious bandits.
*William Nugent’s namesake was an Irish rebel of the 16th century, who took up arms in Ireland, was forced out of his homeland, ended up in Rome where he conspired with Spanish nobles on the prospects of an Irish insurrection during the planned invasion of England (the disastrous Spanish Armada invasion), was sent on a secret mission by the Duke of Guise to carry a letter to James VI, King of the Scots, during the time of the French Wars of Religion, snuck back into Ireland in the guise of a friar, and after that lived a fairly uneventful life. And, oh yeah, some claim he wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays.
In 1757, he prepared a will, and, in, 1762, his executors began executing his will. In that same year, his middle son, Benjamin, was charged with assault and battery, thus beginning his son’s long, documented rap sheet. It should be noted that this was a period of great upheaval and violence in the Cumberland Valley. As a settlement was being reached to end official hostilities of the French and Indian War, Pontiac’s Rebellion would flare up and continue the violence along the frontier. The Nugents grew up amongst this near constant state of war, where tensions remained high at all times.
The Nugent’s Crimeography
1766: William was found guilty of a felony (charges not specified) along with John Silver and John Lefavort (Lafavour). Though Nugent’s punishment was not listed, Lafavort had to pay restitution and received 21 lashes.
1774: James Speer, of Chanceford Township, York County, places an ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette stating William “unjustly” obtained a promissory note of his.
1778: James placed in jail for “uttering” (distributing) counterfeit money.
1779: Benjamin accused of assault.*
*In 1779, Benjamin also sold $50 worth of supplies to the Cumberland County Militia. I have a hard time believing that those supplies were obtained legally. So on top of all of their other offenses, you can add war profiteering as well.
1780: The “Inhabitants of Cumberland County” petitioned the Supreme Executive Council (like petitioning the Governor today) to issue a proclamation against William and Benjamin, also John Rosborough, Charles Johnston, and Dr. John McCartney as suspects in a number of arsons around the county. They were described as “violent” and “wicked” and having committed “pernicious” and “atrocious” crimes. The Council would issue a $5,000 reward for all or $1,000 for each.
1780: Benjamin and James convicted of highway robbery and sentenced to be hung. Joseph David Cress in Wicked Carlisle gives an account of their crime and execution:
The story goes that James and Benjamin encountered a man one day on the road near Chambersburg. Thinking that the bottle the man carried contained whiskey, they demanded that he turn it over to them. The man gave it up without a struggle. When one of the brothers took a swig from the bottle, they found out that it contained yeast, so they broke the bottle over the traveler’s head and proceeded to beat him up. The brothers were later arrested...It is said that on the day of their execution, the brother refused to leave their jail cell, prompting the authorities to smoke them out by burning sulfur under their cell door. As they left, one brother remarked to the other, “Hell can be no worse than that.” (15)
1782: William is captured and brought to York County jail by Ephraim Hunter and Thomas Gold, who submit a claim on the reward on Nugent.
1782: Virginia Gov. Benjamin Harrison V pardons a William Smith, who is later identified as William Nugent, with the condition that he serves three years in the backcountry Virginia lead mines. A later letter describes how Smith (aka Nugent) did not show up at the mines.
1782: In October, William is found guilty of thieving a black mare and a bay mare from a James Dickey, Jr. He was sentenced to payback Dickey for the stolen horses, pay an equal fine to the state, six months hard labor at the public workhouse, 39 lashes, and have both ears cut off (a practice referred to as cropping). He appealed his sentence, and managed to have the cropping remitted while the other punishments remained.
The kid looked at the man. His head was strangely narrow and his hair was plastered up with mud in a bizarre and primitive coiffure. On his forehead were burned the letters HT and lower and almost between the eyes the letter F and these markings were splayed and garish as if the iron had been left on too long. When he turned the kid could see he had no ears. (Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy).
1784: William is still in jail and his appeal on the fines he has to pay stemming from his conviction is handed over to local magistrate.
1788: The magistrates of Franklin County petition the Supreme Executive Council to offer an award for the apprehending of William, “Nugent has been charged with many others, and the good people of this county are at present afraid of his enormities and depredations.” The Council issued a proclamation for his arrest and issued a $200 reward, saying Nugent was, “lurking about, to the terror and annoyance of the good people of the county.” The Freeman Journal or the National Intelligencer gives a description of William: “about five feet ten inches high, fifty years of age, grey headed - a farther description is unnecessary, as he is well known in the back counties.”
And then William disappears from the record, and the Nugents disappear from Franklin County’s history. One report has the William was captured and executed like his brothers, but there has been no evidence to back that up.
A look into William’s crimes and punishments offer clues to not only what the rest of his life was like, but also provide a personal example to the formation of a nation and what that meant to the law. William’s arrest and subsequent pardon in Virginia in 1782 provide interesting insights into many realms. First off, there is the alias, which might explain how he disappeared or any gaps in his criminal record. If he used an alias in this instance, then it is entirely likely he could have done the same many other times. Maybe after 1788, when the heat was on, he assumed a new identity and fled to parts unknown. Or he died or was killed or executed.
While the nature of his crime in Virginia is never mentioned in the available record, it suggests that Nugent was arrested for theft, more specifically horse theft, as he was arrested and pardoned with a known horse thief and right afterwards he would be arrested in York County for horse theft. During the course of the war, there was a great increase in horse stealing all over America. It was common practice for thieves at the time to steal horses from one area, drive them down to a different area and sell the stolen property to an unsuspecting buyer in a completely new state, which accounts for his presence in Virginia. The timing of the arrest is curious as it falls only a few months before his capture and conviction in York County, meaning right after being captured for horse theft he goes back to Pennsylvania only to steal some more horses and get caught.
Lastly, there is a letter from a William Rose describing four fugitives who never reported for their time at the Virginia lead mines. The letter describes William as “27 years of age, born in the back part of Pennsylvania, and a few years ago had two brothers executed in that state by the name of Nugent. He is...about 5 feet 9 inches high, of a dark complexion, and wore remarkably bushy black hair.” The backstory and height are consistent with the other description of William, but the hair, which could conceivably change color in the eight years between descriptions especially taking into account that Nugent would have served hard time, and felt the end of a number of lashes, and age are off. The age in particular is troubling due to it being so radically different. The 1788 description listed Nugent as being 50 years old, which would place his birth around 1738 making him, in 1782, 46 years old. This 1782 description of William Smith lists him as 27 years old, placing his birth around 1755, which does not jive with William Nugent, Sr.’s will dated 1757, which places William as the oldest son. Maybe at the time, he looked really young for his age, an immortal perhaps, or this could have been his son, or also a case of mistaken identity. If anything, it does show how far the infamous Nugent name travelled, from Pennsylvania, through Maryland (he was arrested and pardoned with a man from Frederick, MD) down into Virginia.
The Nugent Legend
It was an infamous name no doubt. Residents and local magistrates of the area had to petition the Supreme Executive Council on two separate occasions for assistance in apprehending William, a step that had not been taken since the early months of the French and Indian War, when local residents petitioned the Provincial government for arms and assistance in dealing with attacks by Native Americans. Later histories are filled with stories of the Nugent’s villainy. From History of John Peter Snyder, “Sometime after the savage Indians had left, there was a class of men by the name of Nugent, natives of Pennsylvania, whom he [Snyder] feared more than the Indians. They were a terror to early settlers and were known as a villainous, thieving set, capable of any atrocity.” From History of Franklin County, Pennsylvania:
We are not surprised, therefore, to learn that toward the close of the last century a band of desperadoes, know by the name “Nugents” infested the Cumberland Valley, and preyed upon the people, whom they terrorized. Organized and systematic in their operations, they swooped down upon hamlet and rustic homestead, taking horses or whatever else of plunder they could most conveniently seize, and hurrying to their dens in the mountains. Law and official authority were defied; the people yielded their property voluntarily, often rather than be subjected to greater outrages at an unexpected hour, and, for a time, the peace and prosperity of the community were at the mercy of these reckless banditi.
Lastly, from the Biographical Annals of Franklin County:
One day the Indian went to a tavern, known as McCormack’s, where he became slighly intoxicated. While in this condition one of the notorious Nugent brother, of the family of Conococheague outlaws, attempted to cut his throat. Nugent stuck a knife into the Indian’s neck, but partly missed his aim and only succeeded in cutting the forepart of the windpipe.
Outside of these second and third hand stories, not much is known about the criminal organization of the Nugents. In some of the records that exist, they list some of the known associates of the Nugents, but give no detail about their operations. What is known though is that the Nugents created a lasting legacy of terror and violence that scared the locals as much as Native American attacks did a generation before.
Colonial and Early Republic Crime and Punishment
The Nugents operated at a time of shifting laws and attitudes towards criminal justice. In the Colonial Era, there was no distinctive American legal system. From colony to colony, criminal codes, punishments, and courts varied. These variations continued on into the Early Republic as each state developed their own laws, jails, and ideas on punishments. Due to the Quaker influence, Pennsylvania’s criminal code had always been milder than that of England and the other colonies, but still a large amount of crimes were punishable by death and corporal punishment, such as lashing and ear cropping.
During the rule of the Provincial government in Pennsylvania, the governor frequently, for the time period, would step in and either issue a pardon or reprieve for those about to face the gallows. There were 141 death penalty convictions in Pennsylvania, and the governor issued 41 pardons and 26 reprieves, compared to Virginia, which had close to 400 executions by the end of the 18th century. This practice carried over during the wartime government and the subsequent formation of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.*
* Between 1779 and 1789, Pennsylvania executed 26 people for robbery, Benjamin and James being two of them.
This time period was a period of great change in the Pennsylvania criminal code. Reformers and assemblymen began looking at the laws and punishments and thinking of different ways to curb crime and begin rehabilitating criminals.* Six years after the Nugents hangings, in 1786, Pennsylvania would abolish the death penalty for robbery, burglary, and unnatural crimes and lightened the penalty for certain offenses not capital before. This was followed up in 1794, with the death penalty being abolished for all but premeditated murder.
*This practice wasn’t unique to just Pennsylvania. As shown by the William Smith (aka Nugent) arrest and pardon, Virginia was getting creative in using criminals to meet their lead mine labor shortages.
The severity of the punishments were due in large part to the nature of the local jails. In the Colonial and Early Republic periods, jails primarily were used as nonpunitive pre-trial and pre-sentencing detention facilities. Debtors were the only individuals who were held for any considerable period of time in a county jail. The jails themselves were extremely ineffective at holding prisoners and were poorly guarded, so most inmates had a better than a 50/50 chance at escaping in the night. Throughout the late 1770s and into the early 1780s, the Cumberland County Jail in Carlisle was described as “insufficient” to hold prisoners.
Criminals were typically only held for as long as the next court session. Once court was in session, the jails would empty out and the process would start all over again. Many of those charged with crimes were not held in jail at all. They posted bail and told to show up on the day of court. If they failed to do so, then they forfeit their bail. Benjamin and James both were cited for not appearing to court, were fined, and their bail was forfeited.
As part of Pennsylvania’s legal reforms, the workhouse began to be implemented more and more during sentencing. In 1782, William, on top of all of everything else, i.e. fines, lashes, and cropping, was sentenced to serve six months in the workhouse. Traditionally, the workhouse was solely used to hold paupers and vagrants and not open to felons. Pennsylvania, along with New Jersey, led the vanguard on substituting imprisonment for corporal punishment and of combining the jail and the workhouse. This institutionalized the practice of punishing a crime through imprisonment and the manner of imprisonment should be hard labor and not idleness.* The workhouses were less than desirable places, a “degenerate receptacle” where every kind of pauper, needy or criminal, young or old, infirm, healthy or insane were dumped there. This practice would lead to the first prisons being built to house criminals long-term.
* In 1786 (1787?), William was convicted of robbery and sentenced to three years of hard labor. The Freeman Journal or the National Intelligencer gives a detailed description of what hard labor amounted to:
The several persons before mentioned also forfeited all the goods and chattels, lands and tenements, which they had at the time of committing the said offenses, or any time afterwards, until their convictions, respectively; and were directed to be fed, cloathed and dealt with in such manner, as by the act of assembly...They were ordered to be kept at labor, in repairing and cleaning the streets of the city of Philadelphia and suburbs, and in making and repairing the highways in the county of Philadelphia, in the digging, and quarrying of stones, in sawing fire wood, and in digging, removing and levelling earth, and in all or any of the labors aforesaid in such manner, and for such time, as shall be found convenient.
Over the span of three decades, the Nugent brothers got into a lot of trouble. They put an entire valley on edge. They were one of many bandits and desperados that flouted the law along the first American frontier, and for that they were captured and punished, executed and maimed.
John Howard McClellon, “Colonial Counterfeiters of the Blue Ridge.” The Kittochtinny Historical Society, Vol. XX (1998): 67-110.
Joseph David Cress, Wicked Carlisle: The Dark Side of the Cumberland Valley (The History Pess: Charleston, SC, 2012).
Scott Weisensaul, The First Frontier: The Forgotten The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America (Houghton Mifflin Harcout: New York, 2012).
Kenneth Scott, Counterfeiting in Colonial America (University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2000).
Ben Tarnoff, A Counterfeiter's Paradise: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Early American Moneymakers (Penguin Press: New York, 2012).
Herbert William Keith Fitzroy, “The Punishment of Crime in Provincial Pennsylvania.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 60, No. 3 (Jul. 1936): 242-269.